The Star (1952)

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While FX’s Feud may have made an unsavory introduction of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis to non-classic movie fans, some theaters took the show’s popularity as an opportunity to highlight the earlier work that made them stars. Here in Los Angeles, the Egyptian Theatre programmed a Bette vs. Joan series of four films over two nights: Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950) and The Star (1952), and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945) and Possessed (1947).

However! In a series of events that seemed to signal a continuation of the supposed feud into the supernatural domain, none of those screenings occurred without issue. The first night was supposed to feature Possessed and The Star, but the theater’s print of The Star turned out to be dubbed in Italian. The next evening was supposed to be All About Eve and Mildred Pierce, but the night ended prematurely when a block-wide blackout hit the theater about 15 minutes before the end of All About Eve. (That one seemed eerily reminiscent of the great fire alarm drill of TCMFF 2016—which, for me, had also occurred during a Bette Davis film, Dark Victory.)

As part of their reparations for the screening snafus, the Egyptian scheduled a free, all-day fest of the four movies this past Memorial Day. Since the original screenings had been attempted a month ago, I hadn’t been able to wait and had already caught up with All About Eve and Mildred Pierce at home. So for the Egyptian’s redo, I decided to go out for The Star instead, which was the only one of the four I had never seen.

The Film

At first, the story seems tailor-made for Davis. Scripted by Katherine Albert and Dale Eunson, The Star follows an aging, Oscar-winning movie star desperately clinging to the last tendrils of her fame. Davis was 44 at the time the film came out, and despite her iconic performance in All About Eve just two years prior, she had emerged into a cool, unfriendly casting landscape for a woman “of age.” It’s hard not to imagine Davis inserting a bit of herself into the sneer she gives the male friend insisting that younger actresses prosper due to their undefinable “dewy” quality.

Bette Davis as Margaret Elliot, Sterling Hayden as a tall drink of water

The Star actually has a more direct connection to the feud between Davis and Crawford. Albert and Eunson were close friends of Crawford—to the point that she was their daughter’s godmother and namesake—and the character was reportedly based on her. While Eunson caged a bit by stating the character was “a little too close to her,” Davis stated more explicitly,”Oh yes, that was Crawford…It was just that whole approach of hers to the business as regards the importance of glamour and all of the offstage things.” In Bette and Joan, author Shaun Considine notes that Crawford was aware of the character’s similarities to her, and enacted her revenge by helping Albert and Eunson’s daughter get married without their permission (or presence).

Davis’s approach to the character—by way of Crawford—seems to have allowed some distance in her performance. She was able to be a little sharper, maybe a little meaner, than had she been working with the mirror turned fully on herself. The character is tragic, though ultimately not due to the industry’s cruelty to her, but rather her inability to recognize that it’s time to let go.

The ending of the film, like so many others of this era, rewards Margaret with a happy ending that privileges the reconciliation of the family unit. In her case, it means she unites with Sterling Hayden—a former actor who now enjoys the simple life of running a shipping supply company—which isn’t all bad. But it also means, ultimately, giving up her life as an actress. The mere idea that a woman could have both a career and a family seems to be the film’s main antagonist; it upholds the idea that being a “woman” means, essentially, being a wife and mother only. The point is emphasized even on the poster: “When the star fades… the woman is born!”—as though someone couldn’t be both woman and movie star. While the rest of the movie could certainly be read as an inspirational tale of feminine independence in the face of patriarchal adversity, the ending certainly places it firmly back into its cultural context.

The Screening

The screening itself went off, perhaps surprisingly, with no issues! Happily, the Egyptian’s popcorn machine is working again, so they’re no longer reliant on bags of chips and pretzels for sustenance. For these screenings, the theater also had some liquor specials: beer, wine, and Bette-Davis-endorsed Jim Beam. I went with the Jim Beam (in a red Solo cup) as the most festive selection, obviously.

There was a decent crowd in attendance, though it always seems especially sparse in the post-festival haze. Part of that was certainly due to the marathon-nature of the day, as no individual screening times were announced ahead of time. From other patrons, it sounded like the earlier screenings were a little more heavily attended, The theater also provided rather long breaks between pictures for people who were planning to stick around all day, which made it a little hard to predict when each of the successive films would start.

Overall, two evenings of unique experiences for the price of one, and more still to come!

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